My ear to the question: Margaret Cameron

Lately I have been reading Hanif Kureishi’s ode to his father, to family history, and to writing itself, My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father (2004). Kureishi has combined memoir with candid, insistent questioning; he is as articulate about the maddening stresses of writing as he is alive to the continual undertow between writing, love, and mourning. While Kureishi’s ear listens for insight about child-parent relationships, his book repeatedly turned my mind towards memories of dear friend, fellow artist, and mentor Margaret Cameron (20 January 1955–20 October 2014). I wondered whether Margaret had come upon My Ear at His Heart. She would surely have delighted in conversation about it, if not also in a reading aloud of an excerpt or two, preferably on a weekend afternoon, near the lit stove in the bright living room of her home by Port Phillip Bay.

‘What is the history of each individual? Where does it start and end, and, more importantly, how does this history continue to work in you? Unknowable though they might be, where do the dead go and what do they do? … To what extent do the dead determine the lives of the living? … How do you keep them vital within you?’ (My Ear at His Heart, pp. 197–98).

Carved with the word ‘poet’, Margaret’s gravestone can be found on the hillside of Portarlington Cemetery, overlooking Port Phillip Bay in the direction of Melbourne (read her obituary here). I am glad to be able to keep thinking of her in connection with the skies and moods of the bay. Margaret swam at the beach located a hundred paces from her front door in the township of Indented Head. The ritual of immersing herself in water was a reliable source of solace and inspiration. She took baths in the morning so as to think. One day during work on Care Instructions, we were struggling to understand one another, and she described herself to me as a dolphin: a creature needing to dive down below the topmost waves before resurfacing to communicate. I learnt to be more patient. And like a dolphin, Margaret could surprise by suddenly, playfully leaping to the surface—with a fresh word, or more usually an image, to offer as a procedural suggestion.

Maybe Kureishi’s spirit of fearless enquiry reminds me of Margaret. This spirit was inseparable from her dramaturgical talents and creative stamina. To the task of lifting breath and body, words, images, and ideas into the realms of theatre, she brought a deep respect for the strange logic of intuition—and for the richness of ‘not knowing’ until ‘it’ becomes manifest. Making new work together was a precarious, demanding process, with all the trickiness and felt texture of committing to a koan. Becoming willing to plunge in to such a process with Margaret has been formative for me since a first rehearsal in 2003.

In April 2006 I posted Margaret a copy of The Uninhabitable of L. B., a script of sorts very recently completed. The project had begun in the preceding year, and finishing the writing produced more relief and trepidation than usual, since The Uninhabitable of L. B. had weighed upon me as ambitious. A fortnight later I received an email from Margaret: ‘Dear Cynthia, today—sunny Anzac Day holiday, I collected the mail. I’ve just sat in the sun and read your text’. Margaret’s communications could be cryptically brief; another reason to treasure her thoughtful missive of that day now nine years ago. ‘L. B.—her body is present, viscous and solid (a body / a building), but glistening also. … Sometimes I think I’m breast-stroking—coming up (to her presence) and going down—seeing through a lens as water can provide. Hearing also above water and beneath water. … It’s a very surprising journey you take. Immense. Glacial. Funny’. She was receptive to humour in my work where I had failed to notice its potential. ‘I can’t pretend to know what you’re doing, or how you’ve done it, but it is really fascinating and absorbing. … Don’t doubt’.

Through the drawn-out, perplexing intervals of creating her solo works, Margaret’s practice was attended by great doubt, and increasing confidence. She could encourage others because she understood the necessity of biding with both, past the shallows. The first chapter of her forthcoming book, I Shudder to Think: Performance as Philosophy (2015), considers her decision to ‘“stop acting” and “start writing”’. She recalls wondering if she could ‘find words that were not a source of ridicule or alienation’. The chapter culminates with this observation: ‘it seems to me that an artist very often moves toward their greatest difficulty. It is the very thing in the way, the uncomfortable grit of one’s nature and biography that rubs’. Like Kureishi’s, Margaret’s ear was searching, sensitive, generous, closely attuned to the repercussions of childhood, and to the resonant influence of the dead in the lives of the living. She too would have appreciated Kureishi’s unfathomable question, ‘how does [their] history continue to work in you?’.

Card-writing and crucial debate

Last week a small but committed group from PEN Melbourne met for the annual evening of card-writing to writers who are imprisoned around the world. For such events, the PEN International Writers in Prison Committee collates a document from its current case list, providing details about those writers who can be contacted via a postal address. Where possible, the entry on each writer includes a small photograph or picture, and a line or two summarising his or her sentence. This year, the fifty-three entries included Australian journalist Peter Greste, who, with Al Jazeerah colleagues Mohammad Fahmy and Baher Mohammad, has now spent over three hundred days in Cairo’s Tora Prison. (You can write to Peter Greste using the email address freepetergreste@gmail.com.)

In October Greste contributed a trenchant keynote address to the Frontline Club 2014 awards ceremony in London. The text of the speech was compiled by family members, the content relayed to them during their fortnightly prison visits. In attesting to the highly significant decline, through the past decade, of press freedom across the globe, Greste’s speech also concludes with a very admirable optimism: he notes the momentum returning to ‘a crucial debate about the relationship between governments and the media; or more correctly, between a free press and a free society’. As I saw and heard throughout the 2014 PEN International Congress just two months ago, the PEN centres in more than a hundred countries and territories are helping to foster that ‘crucial debate’, as part of their striving to protect free expression. Nota bene: on Thursday, Greste’s speech accepting this year’s Walkley Award for Courage and Outstanding Contribution to Journalism emphasised that the struggle to defend media freedom ‘is just as important for democratic accountability in Australia as it is […] in Egypt’.

Altogether, by the close of our evening of card-writing there were more than one hundred and thirty envelopes to carry to the post office. Each was a personal, handwritten expression of awareness of the addressee’s situation, an assertion of care and goodwill, and a reminder of the staunch support of PEN members. Usually, the Annual General Meeting of PEN Melbourne precedes the card-writing activity. In anticipation of speaking at the meeting, I completed a report—or rather an essay—about the five days in spent in Bishkek (capital of the Kyrgyz Republic), as a delegate to the 80th PEN International Congress in September–October. The essay can be read here; it was written for the PEN Melbourne Quarterly Newsletter. Since returning from the Congress I can say that I am more often brought to reflect that freedom of expression and press freedom are both enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And that even so, to be able to post a news item such as this without fear of repercussions feels like a privilege never to be taken lightly.

Learning and conjuring from the ear

According to Mia Lindgren of Monash University—and many others—the medium of radio is flourishing right now around the world, enjoying a resurgence in audience numbers, and thriving as a focus for creative enterprise and experiment. Lindgren’s research centres on the radio documentary (read here her study of emerging trends, written with Sioban McHugh), yet also names the radio feature as a ‘revived format’ for radio storytelling. In Neil MacGregor’s amiable phrase, both kinds of program clearly foster ‘learning from the ear’. This good news is being conveyed as the story of a ‘renaissance’ in spite of bleak predictions; a tradition of catastrophising views about the future of radio is easily traced back to the early 1960s and the advent of television as the prevailing form of mass communication.

The same theme of a ‘renaissance’, even a nascent Golden Age, attended publicity for the June launch of Radiotonic and Soundproof, two new weekly, national programs, produced by ABC Radio National (RN) under the aegis of the Creative Audio Unit (CAU). Executive Producer Julie Shapiro has described Radiotonic and Soundproof as ‘sister’ shows, and programs that are intended to overlap: ‘we want both to succeed in compelling audiences to take a closer listen to what’s coming out of the radio. … To make time for it. To better understand (or at least ponder) how sound + story + idea can take shape right before your ears’.

Here I disclose an interest in these matters radio-related, in that during July I greatly enjoyed collaborating with producer Miyuki Jokiranta and sound engineer Richard Girvan at the ABC’s Southbank Studios to create the short feature Violin Lessons (including Three Pieces for the Young Violinist). It was commissioned by the CAU for broadcast on Radiotonic. (Download the podcast here; read the short story on which Violin Lessons is based here.) While making the work, I came to appreciate more deeply how the soundscape of RN’s weekend programs remains inseparable from certain childhood memories of family life. From the kitchen or in the car, the radio provided a sometimes clangorous ostinato accompaniment to the restless comings and goings of school-free days.

On courage and long-lived writers

‘I believed that if I set my mind to it, maybe I wouldn’t be published, but I would write a great piece of music, or do something about becoming a real friend. Yes, I would do something wonderful’. Vale Maya Angelou (4 April 1928–28 May 2014), whose wisdom—whose music in poetry and prose—cannot but continue to be real friends to the reader, and unstintingly generous to the reader, as she said, ‘who hears … going behind what I seem to say’. Without question her work and legacy will continue to do something wonderful in this lopsided world.

On hearing of her death, I reached for a well-thumbed copy of Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. First published in 1988, this collection was revised for a 1998 edition that includes an interview with Angelou recorded in New York City in 1990 before a devoted audience. Focused on her autobiographical books (five by 1990), the interview—or rather Angelou’s responses—emphasise the theme of courage. She identifies courage as ‘the most important of all the virtues. Without that virtue you can’t practice any other virtue with consistency’. The interviewer was George Plimpton, co-founder of the Paris Review with Harold L. Humes and Peter Matthiesson.

Angelou’s seventh volume of autobiography, Me & Mom & Me was published in 2013, just before her eighty-fifth birthday. I think of courage; I think also of the challenges of bringing consistency to writing over a long lifetime. In her interview with Plimpton, Angelou praises sharpness of language and ‘get[ting] it to sing’. Doubtless it’s impossible to craft sentence after sentence such that each new work will prove as penetrating and resonant as the last. But consistency can be in the practice of writing during many, many years: in devotion to diligence; acceptance of the always undiminished responsibility of wrestling alone with the language, its exactitude, and all the possible forms and turns a particular story might take until eventually, eventually, it is written.

There’s something of the formal interview in John Updike’s final essay, ‘The Writer in Winter’ (2008). As though for the benefit of young writers, he reflects on being ‘a grey-haired scribe’, a writer continuing to write in old age—and concludes with the stark admission, ‘among those diminishing neurons there lurks the irrational hope that the last book might be the best’. Surely that hope lurks also in the minds of any reader who has admired, or loved, or perhaps simply pondered the work of a living writer? So it has felt doubly sad, somehow, to read mixed reviews of Peter Matthiesson’s final book, In Paradise (2014), a novel, he noted, that he ‘couldn’t walk away from’ writing, even as ‘it was a very odd book and a very difficult book for me to do’. Matthiesson acknowledged this in a long interview for The New York Times recorded at his home in Sagaponack village: he died two days after the interview was published, and three before the release of In Paradise.

Jeff Himmelman, Matthiesson’s interviewer, observes that the author ‘wants you to feel’ cold and damp throughout reading In Paradise. Physically, and in an enlivening sense, this is how I felt when engrossed in Matthiesson’s gem of a book The Snow Leopard (1979) for the first time, during a heatwave this past Australian summer. Pico Iyer has described The Snow Leopard as a ‘tough-minded classic’ both for its translucent prose and its stark allegory. An autobiographical account of journeying deep into the Himalayan land of Dolpo during the autumn of 1973, it’s a work of spiritual enquiry, ecstatic in places, while relentlessly unsentimental. Despite the extraordinary success of Matthiesson’s nonfiction, however, the author defined himself as a writer of fiction ‘from the start’—a view that, by all accounts, it took courage to sustain and live out against the views of others. Vale Peter Matthiesson (22 May 1927–5 April 2014). When he was interviewed for the Paris Review, in 1999, he declared, ‘I am energized by fiction. Deep in a novel, one scarcely knows what may surface next, let alone where it comes from. In abandoning oneself to the free creation of something never beheld on earth, one feels almost delirious with a strange joy’. Here’s to the somethings that come from that.

Remember Feminist Publishing? And Fax Machines?

This time next week, I’ll be at The Wheeler Centre in conversation with feminist writer, publisher and activist Susan Hawthorne, about Fair Trade and Fair Speech: Feminist Publishing in the 21st Century. Researching in preparation for this event, I’ve been equally disturbed and amazed to discover that the Sixth International Feminist Book Fair (IFBF), which was hosted in Melbourne in July 1994, was the last. Beginning in London in 1984, the IFBF took place every two years; the sixth was the first in the southern hemisphere. With no small ambition it was held at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building, and took the theme of ‘Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Writing and Publishing’. At the time it was described as ‘a rare event’. Nowadays such a committed, high-profile celebration of feminist thinking and women’s writing, publishing and reading seems fantastic—in the older-fashioned sense of ‘odd and remarkable’, and having been ‘conceived by an unrestrained imagination’. Almost certainly these days the use of the word ‘feminist’ in the title of a major publishing industry initiative would be considered ill-advised. In Hawthorne’s words, ‘what we see in public fora in Australia is feminism sexed-up, feminism cat-fights, feminism lite’.

Meanwhile, it’s no news in 2014 that the drastic lack of support for women writers and women’s voices remains a systemic issue within the publishing and media industries worldwide, not least in leading literary publications such as the London Review of Books. (In connection with book reviewing in Australia read here about the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.)

Was there some collective prescience at work in the fact that the Sixth IFBF was self-consciously well documented? Catherine Marciniak wrote and directed a film of interviews and readings called Life on the Rim. In the archives of the Baillieu Library at The University of Melbourne, there’s a dedicated collection of 2.2 metres, in which ‘most correspondence consists of faxes’. Remember the rise of the office fax machine? Like the IFBF, I guess it’s been history for a while.